Quaise Asylum Burial Ground

This little cemetery hidden away in Quaise was long ago separated from the institution it served. A rerouting of Polpis Road in 1884 and the more recent removal of a large boulder from the field of otherwise unmarked graves made its presence even more obscure. Its location was nearly lost to living memory more than once during the 20th century. 

In 1933 James H. Gibbs, the town bell-ringer and also custodian for the Atheneum, issued a statement about the Quaise Asylum Burial Ground, which, during his childhood, had been fenced. By the time of the road work in the 1880s, however, the fence was gone, and “Uncle James” set cement posts at the four corners of the cemetery. 

In an interview just three weeks before his death in 1966, Jay Gibbs, who had succeeded his father as bell ringer, told of accompanying his father when he installed the posts.  A visit to the site revealed them to still be there, and more recently the corners have been marked with cedar fencing. The site and a pathway to it from two parking areas on Altar Rock Road have been periodically mowed.  

This situation was further improved in the winter of 2009–10 by the placement of an identifying sign within the bounds of the cemetery itself. 

The wooden sign was subsequently replaced with a boulder inscribed with the cemetery name. In 2022 a sign indicating the nearby presence of a historic cemetery was placed at the intersection of Polpis Road and Altar Rock Road, and directional pointers to the cemetery were placed at the parking areas on Altar Rock Road. A memorial stone has been installed in the cemetery that is inscribed with the names and dates of twelve people whose interment there is documented. 

While the last resting place of some of the residents of the Asylum is in Quaise, the building in which others resided in life is now located in town. On the left side of Orange Street as one proceeds outbound from the center, stands the Landmark House. Now housing an assisted living community, it was previously Our Island Home.  

Before the prominent old building was Our Island Home, it had been Nantucket’s Town and County Asylum. The word “asylum” invites the modifier “insane,” but Nantucket’s Asylum served the indigent. A person might be unable to support himself by reason of mental incapacity, but some elderly people found their way to the Asylum simply because they had outlived anyone who could care for them at home. Others ended up there after falling ill far from home. Such was the plight of a number of unfortunate Pacific Islanders who came to Nantucket on whaling ships and breathed their last in Nantucket’s Asylum. 

Like so many historic Nantucket houses, the Orange Street building has been moved from place to place. It began its service in Quaise as part of an evolving social experiment. 

The Town of Nantucket had built a workhouse on land between Vestal Street and Upper Main Street in 1773. Initially, residence there was not compulsory for people receiving municipal aid, but then things changed.  Nantucket historian Obed Macy wrote, “Somewhere about 1796 it was concluded that all who wanted supplies from the town must come and reside at the so-called workhouse. By midwinter this plan came near to starving some of the poor to death, for rather than take their families and go to the workhouse, they went hungry.”  In 1805 the town built a jail on the site of the old workhouse, necessitating some other living arrangement for the indigent. 

It took until 1822 for the town to come up with a solution.  The poor would be moved to a healthful rural setting where they would raise their own food. According to the town’s selectmen, the Mark Coffin farm in Quaise just fit the bill. Obed Macy did not approve of this plan.   He objected that the move would isolate the poor from the community and their relatives, that transporting people and supplies out to them would be expensive, and that the people who would be sent to Quaise were, in any case, too debilitated to do farm work. At the very least, wrote Macy, the town should consider buying one of several smaller farms that were available at the time. 

The town meeting ignored these considerations and went ahead with the plan. Coffin’s farm was purchased and four buildings were erected on it.   Ultimately, one of them—built in 1826—was moved to town and re-erected right next to the jail off Vestal Street to serve as Nantucket’s House of Correction. 

The Quaise Asylum functioned from the 1820s to 1844 when a fire broke out on a snow-bound winter night.  The alarm bell was tolled and tolled, but the fire had burned itself out before firefighters could make their way to Quaise. Of the fifty-nine inmates of the Asylum, ten perished in the blaze. One of the survivors, Lucretia Brackett, was credited with saving the lives of several of the others by dragging them to windows where rescuers stood ready with ladders. Another, Lydia Bowen, rescued her child from the fire but then re-entered the burning building and perished. 

The dead ranged in age from 41 to 87 years old.  They were: 

  • Lydia Bowen
  • Sophia Beebe
  • Jonathan Cathcart
  • Abiel Davis
  • Wealthy Davis
  • William Holmes
  • Thomas Hull
  • William Hutchinson
  • Paul Jenkins
  • Phebe Jones 

The fire victims were buried in a nearby field, and the next year the town invested nearly $2,000 in a fine new building for the Quaise Asylum. Nonetheless, Obed Macy’s predictions had proven true. Isolation of the poor had been fatal for ten of them, and provisioning the survivors so far from town was impractical. In less than a decade, the new building was moved in sections from Quaise to the present location on Orange Street to serve as a place “for care of the needy, mentally ill, homeless, and diseased.”  The residents were still expected to raise their own vegetables, and they did so on the nearby land known to this day as Poverty Point.  The 1854 move cost the town $7,500. 

According to oral tradition there were seventeen burials in Quaise. A total of 317 deaths were recorded at the Asylum between 1822 and 1873, with at least twenty of them taking place before the fire and two shortly after. Some of the deceased were buried elsewhere: Abraham Blish, who died on March 5, 1841, was buried at Polpis, while William Carter, who died the very next day, was laid to rest in Shimmo.  “Uncle” Benjamin Davis, who died on April 14, 1841, is recorded as “first buried there”—presumably on Quaise Asylum property.  Eliza Morrison who was admitted in mid-July of that year as a pauper and died of tuberculosis on September 5, was also “buried on the Farm.” 

Hardly had the facility gotten up and running on Orange Street when two significant deaths took place: on November 25, 1854, Abram Quary, “the First that died in the Asylum in Town, aged 82 years, 10 months;” and then on January 12, 1855, Dorcas Honorable, “Aged 72 years, 8 months, 12 days.” They were the very last of Nantucket’s dwindling list of “last Indians.”

Little is on record of their burial arrangements.  In the town’s death ledger, Abram Quary’s place of interment is listed simply as “Nantucket.”  Elsewhere his grave is described as “unmarked.” In 1920 Roland B. Hussey claimed to know the location of Quary’s grave and recommended that a tablet should be placed there.  

Dorcas Honorable is said to have been buried from “the Baptist Church,” which begs the question of whether she was buried from the Summer Street Baptist Church or the Pleasant Street (African) Baptist Church.  If the latter, she was surely laid to rest in the Historic Coloured Cemetery. 

It is plainly written on the death certificate of another women who died at the Asylum that she was buried in the Coloured Cemetery.  In 1873, Patience Cooper, a woman who—by modern standards of evidence—should never have been convicted of manslaughter in the 1860s, was released after two years in the Bristol Country House of Correction.   Prior to that she had spent a decade in the House of Corrections on Vestal Street, the building originally constructed in 1826 at the Quaise Farm. At the time of her release, Cooper was an aged woman with nowhere to go, so she became a resident of the Asylum on Orange Street.  After an interval of two years of incarceration off-island, she had exchanged life in one recycled Quaise Farm building for life in another. There she lived until her death in 1885. 

The community’s attitude toward those who were unable to live on their own continued to evolve. Obed Macy observed that the “town poor” had been miserably provided for back in the 1790s.  At the beginning of the 1820s, as the town meeting debated moving them out of town, Macy wrote, “It is represented that they are nasty and wicked.”   By the time the Asylum was brought back to town, attitudes had softened.  Now the Asylum existed to provide care for the incapacitated. Finally, in 1905, the town’s board of overseers renamed the Asylum “Our Island Home” and defined its mission as to provide “tender loving care of the infirm aged,” a role fulfilled with grace and real beauty to this day. 

After the nursing home residents moved into a new building in 1981 and took the name Our Island Home with them, a five-year effort to transform the old Asylum building into affordable housing for Nantucket’s independent seniors came to fruition, and the Landmark House opened. So ended the odyssey of a building that began its existence miles away out in Quaise as part of a distinctly punitive institution. 

As for the other old Asylum building that was moved to town to serve a decidedly more punitive function as the Town and County House of Correction, in 1952 it was declared a fire hazard and demolished. 

Out of town, only diligence on the part of caring Nantucketers has kept the tiny Quaise Asylum Burial Ground from disappearing into the scrub oak for all time. 

This description is excerpted from Nantucket Places and People 4: Underground by Frances Ruley Karttunen (2010).